Practising social work as part of a public inquiry

Two social workers who worked on the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse discuss how a trauma-informed approach was vital in building victims' and survivors' trust and the confidence of fellow staff

Trust word written on wooden block.
Photo: adzicnatasa/Adobe Stock

By Cassy Harrison and Jacqui Smith

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), set up in 2015 to examine a broad range of institutions and organisations and their responses to allegations of child sexual abuse (CSA), reported last October, making far-reaching recommendations to better protect children.

As social workers, we have been part of a small, psychology-led multidisciplinary team that has supported IICSA in delivering its objectives in a safe and trauma-informed way.

A core part of this was safeguarding victims and survivors, over 7,300 of whom engaged with the Inquiry throughout its lifetime. More than 700 gave evidence at public hearings or provided statements, nearly 1,800 joined IICSA’s Victims and Survivors Forum and over 6,200 came forward to share their experiences through the Inquiry’s Truth Project.

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For almost one in ten of those who took part in the Truth Project, sharing their account with IICSA was the first time they had told anyone about the abuse they had experienced. Some spoke of having waited a lifetime.

“I am 65, and the Truth Project is the first support I’ve felt I have had in my whole life where I can actually tell a story,” one participant stated.

In order to meet our objectives, it was vital that these individuals had the trust and confidence to come forward and actively participate.

Building trust through a trauma-informed approach

For victims and survivors who may have been failed in the past by some of the same institutions we were working alongside, ensuring individuals would not be re-traumatised following involvement with the Inquiry was key. Adopting a trauma-informed approach to safeguarding enabled us to minimise this risk, and was something that underpinned IICSA’s engagement with victims and survivors across the board.

We achieved this by seeking to foster trust from the outset and being reliable, consistent and transparent. We ensured we were always clear in our language and communications, whilst always maintaining empathy and understanding. Trauma is an individual experience with varying responses, so we made sure to give consideration to culture, past experiences and gender, working in collaboration with individuals to ensure they felt empowered to make their own choices and that they had control. In doing so, we aimed to create a feeling of safety throughout their journey with us.

Eighty eight per cent of Truth Project participants reported that their experience of CSA had affected their mental health; through our contact with victims and survivors, this is something we witnessed daily.

Equipping staff to safeguard survivors

Individuals described to us how they were dealing with extreme feelings of shame and guilt, depression, as well as suicidal ideation. As such, our safeguarding approach needed to provide for the significant number of staff members at the Inquiry who had not previously worked in CSA or with high-risk, vulnerable individuals. We provided safeguarding training for all staff and contractors, regardless of their role within IICSA, and access to a member of our team to provide timely advice and guidance on any decision where safeguarding was concerned.

Given the lack of familiarity with safeguarding for some staff, there were occasions when non-social work professionals exhibited anxiety at being presented with risk-related behaviours, such as receiving highly emotive correspondence from individuals. It was for management of this anxiety that we needed to provide our specialist support and training, so that staff were able to effectively deal with such incidents, whilst also managing their own emotional responses.

Social workers often have to work in high-pressure environments, adopting crisis intervention methodology to manage people’s anxieties, assess risk and make decisions. Our team of social workers, alongside psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors, provided a calming and reassuring presence to other teams within the Inquiry.

Updated CSA guidance

For the latest practice guidance on child sexual abuse, check out Community Care Inform’s CSA knowledge and practice hub, produced by the Centre of expertise on CSA and updated in January 2023. It includes advice on areas including risk and vulnerability factors, understanding the process of disclosure, sibling sexual abuse and the experiences of boys and children from minoritised groups. The hub is also packed full of interactive learning exercises to do in your teams. It is available to all those with a subscription to Community Care Inform Children. Not sure if you have access to Inform through your employer or course provider? Find help here.

Following the publication of the final report, we are now thinking about next steps and which areas of good practice we will take forward into our new roles and organisations.

Safeguarding within the context of a public inquiry brought both challenges to social work practice and opportunities to think and practice in a different way. Developing a safeguarding framework that held the tenet of ‘do no harm’ at its core, whilst meeting the current safeguarding needs of both vulnerable adults and children naturally required some creative thinking.

By applying key social work skills – such as empathy, communication, critical thinking, active listening, cultural competence, patience and advocacy – we have been able to support the most unlikely of organisations in achieving its objectives, and ultimately help to ensure that children are better protected in future.

Cassy Harrison is safeguarding lead, and was previously deputy safeguarding lead, on the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, and Jacqui Smith is an independent social work consultant who also worked on the Inquiry.

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